Football Features

Why Lille v Ajax would be a huge Champions League match if not for player sales

By Harry Edwards

Published: 14:58, 27 November 2019

Ajax have made a name for themselves as being one of the best talent factories in Europe, bringing through the likes of Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek in recent years.

But one downside to this has seen Europe’s more wealthy clubs circle the Johan Cruyff Arena, waiting for pick out the stars every summer.

The most recent transfer window alone saw Mattijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong poached by Juventus and Barcelona respectively following Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-final.

However, Ajax are not the only club to have suffered from the sales of former players. Their Champions League Group H opponents, Lille, have also seen recent successes result in transfer raids on their squad by bigger clubs in search of prize assets, such as Nicolas Pepe.

All of which means its time for a thought experiment: how would the two sides line up on Wednesday had they not sold their star players?

Lille

Goalkeeper: Mike Maignan

Current club: Lille

Appearances for Lille: 113

The Frenchman joined Lille from Paris Saint-Germain in 2015 and, after struggling to overthrow Vincent Enyeama, became the club’s first-choice goalkeeper in 2017. Maignan endured a rocky first full season as number one but has improved alongside Lille, helping them into the Champions League by keeping 15 clean sheets in Ligue 1 last season.

Right-back: Djibril Sidibe

Current club: Everton (on loan from Monaco)

Appearances for Lille: 119

Sidibe spent four seasons with Lille between 2012 and 2016, signing initially from Troyes. During his spell in French Flanders, the right-back played 119 times, scoring 11 goals and recording seven assists, growing into the attacking defender that shone at Monaco.

Centre-back: Benjamin Pavard

Current club: Bayern Munich

Appearances for Lille: 25

Benjamin Pavard’s name reached the mainstream while at Stuttgart, where he was a key member of France’s 2018 World Cup winners. But not many will know that the 23-year-old, capable of playing across the defence, came through the academy at Lille. Joining as a nine-year-old, Pavard rose through the ranks but played just 25 times for Lille before moving to Stuttgart. Now at Bayern Munich, Pavard is expected to become one of the best defenders in Europe.

Centre-back: Jose Fonte

Current club: Lille

Appearances for Lille: 54

Another member of Lille’s current squad, Jose Fonte has revived his career after a bad spell with West Ham in the Premier League. The 35-year-old, Lille’s captain, has missed just two games this season as the club look to retain their top-four spot in Ligue 1.

Left-back: Lucas Digne

Current club: Everton

Appearances for Lille: 62

Like Pavard, Digne may have made his name elsewhere but started his career as a youngster at Lille. However, the left-back was a big part of Lille’s first-team upon his breakthrough, playing 62 games in two years, and earned a move to Paris Saint-Germain. Spells at Roma and Barcelona have followed before Digne joined Everton, where he is enjoying life as one of the team’s most important players.

Defensive midfielder: Idrissa Gana Gueye

Current club: Paris Saint-Germain

Appearances for Lille: 176

A former Everton teammate of Digne, Gueye also spent time with the Frenchman at Lille, putting in seven years at the club. The combative midfielder played 176 games for Lille before moving to Aston Villa. He would ultimately establish himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe at Everton, eventually joining PSG as a result.

Defensive midfielder: Thiago Mendes

Current club: Lyon

Appearances for Lille: 71

Joining from Sao Paulo in 2017, Mendes quickly became a key member of Lille’s team as they progressed up the Ligue 1 table. Last season the Brazilian missed just four league games as Lille finished second. But Lille would ultimately lose out as a result of his success, with Lyon swooping in to sign Mendes in the summer upon themselves selling Tanguy Ndombele to Spurs.

Right attacking-midfielder: Nicolas Pepe

Current club: Arsenal

Appearances for Lille: 79

Another player Lille lost in the summer, Pepe was breathtaking to help the club finish second in Ligue 1 last season. The Ivorian winger was directly involved in 33 goals, scoring 22 and recording a further 11 assists. This had most of Europe chasing his signature, but Arsenal eventually won the race, signing Pepe for a club-record fee of £72m.

Central attacking-midfielder: Dimitri Payet

Current club: Marseille

Appearances for Lille: 95

Payet spent two years with Lille between 2011 and 2013 but was excellent during that time. In 95 games for the club, Payet scored 19 goals and recorded 31 assists, a record which saw Marseille come in for him. After a short spell at West Ham that yielded a mixture of success and failure, Payet is back at Marseille and enjoying his football.

Left attacking-midfielder: Eden Hazard

Current club: Real Madrid

Appearances for Lille: 194

The star man on the list, Hazard joined Lille as a 14-year-old and grew coming up through the club’s academy. Breaking into the first team in 2008, the Belgian winger played 194 times for Lille, scoring 50 goals. His future in 2012 made headlines as he chose to sign for then-European champions Chelsea, where he is widely regarded as a club legend. In 352 games for the Blues, Hazard scored 110 goals helped them win two Premier League trophies, two Europa Leagues, the League Cup and FA Cup before joining Real Madrid in the summer.

Striker: Victor Osimhen

Current club: Lille

Appearances for Lille: 17

Finishing off with a current Lille player, Osimhen signed from RSC Charleroi in the summer and has been in devastating scoring form this season. In 17 games across all competitions, the Nigerian has scored nine goals – adding two assists to his tally. Osimhen looks set to be a big part of Lille’s squad for years to come.

Ajax

Goalkeeper: Andre Onana

Current club: Ajax

Appearances for Ajax: 162

Onana has been a wonderful goalkeeper for Ajax since joining from Barcelona in 2015, keeping 70 clean sheets in 162 games so far. As a result of being crucial to Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-final last season (on top of their league and cup double), Onana has been linked with a return to Barcelona. However, Ajax are managing to keep hold of their shot-stopper for the time being.

Right-back: Sergino Dest

Current club: Ajax

Appearances for Ajax: 18

Dest has been part of the Ajax set up since 2012, joining as a 11-year-old. After rising through the academy, the American has become a regular member of the first-team this season, starting 13 games at right-back. An attacking outlet, the 19-year-old has recorded five assists in the Eredivisie with Ajax leading the way.

Centre-back: Matthijs de Ligt

Current club: Juventus

Appearances for Ajax: 117

Another former member of Ajax’s academy, De Ligt rose to the very highest level at the Amsterdam club. After being part of the side which reached the Europa League final in 2017 – becoming the youngest player to feature in a major European final – De Ligt was named club captain in 2018. Donning the armband, De Ligt led Ajax to Eredivisie and Dutch Cup glory, while also reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League. His performances earned a move to Juventus where, after a slow start, he is beginning to find his feet.

Centre-back: Jan Vertonghen

Current club: Tottenham Hotspur

Appearances for Ajax: 220

There’s a running theme with this team, as Vertonghen represents another former Ajax academy member. The Belgian defender spent nine years in total in Amsterdam, playing at various levels. He would go on to appear 220 times for the first team with solid performances at left-back and centre-back earning a move to Tottenham in 2012. There, he has had a similarly positive effect.

Left-back: Nicolas Tagliafico

Current club: Ajax

Appearances for Ajax: 82

Ajax don’t just build gems, however. They can also buy them. Tagliafico signed from Independiente in 2018 and very quickly became a key member of the Ajax side. The 27-year-old has missed just seven league games since signing and is usually one of the first names on the team sheet for Erik ten Hag. Having initially flown under the radar, Tagliafico’s performances – especially last season – has seen many clubs paying attention.

Defensive midfielder: Frenkie de Jong

Current club: Barcelona

Appearances for Ajax: 89

At the heart of Ajax’s successes last season was De Jong, whose silkiness on the ball was mesmerising to watch at the heart of the Amsterdammers’ midfield. The Dutchman built a wonderful understanding with the likes of Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic to help Ajax up the pitch. His performances saw Barcelona swoop in before the campaign was even over.

Defensive midfielder: Donny van de Beek

Current club: Ajax

Appearances for Ajax: 157

Moving back to Ajax’s academy products, Van de Beek joined the club at the age of 11 and, like many before him, rose through the ranks to break into the first team. Van de Beek was another of Ajax’s exciting players last season but he has stuck around this year, already scoring seven goals and recording six goals – despite interest over the summer.

Right attacking-midfielder: Hakim Ziyech

Hakim Ziyech in the 2019/20 season

Current club: Ajax

Appearances for Ajax: 152

Another player Ajax did well to keep hold of over the summer, Ziyech is enjoying yet another wonderful season with the Amsterdam club. After scoring 21 goals and recording 24 assists across all competitions last season, Ziyech has scored six and set up 17 in all competitions in 2019/20, including five and 10 in the Eredivisie.

Central attacking-midfielder: Christian Eriksen

Current club: Tottenham Hotspur

Appearances for Ajax: 163

One of Ajax’s more recent famous sons, Eriksen spent just four years with the Amsterdam club between 2009 and 2013 – joining as a 17-year-old from Danish side Odense BK. But in those four years, Eriksen showed promise at becoming one of the best attacking midfielders – something he has gone on to achieve. Eriksen played 163 times for Ajax, scoring 32 goals and 65 games earning a move to Tottenham Hotspur where he has only improved further – despite a poor 2019/20.

Left attacking-midfielder: Dusan Tadic

Current club: Ajax

Appearances for Ajax: 79

Yet another of Ajax’s current stars in the team, Tadic has been playing more as a centre-forward for Ten Hag but still reverts to his favoured left-wing role at times. But whether he is on the wing or through the middle, Tadic scores goals, managing 10 in 23 games across all competitions this season – adding 13 assists. The Serbian has found confidence once more after a poor end to his time with Southampton.

Striker: Luis Suarez

Current club: Barcelona

Appearances for Ajax: 159

The spearhead of what is, frankly, a frightening Ajax team is current Barcelona forward Suarez. The 32-year-old spent three-and-a-half years in Amsterdam, moving from Groningen, and left in 2014 a complete striker. A record of 111 goals in 159 games saw Liverpool come knocking before Barcelona made the Uruguayan theirs in 2014. One of the best strikers in the world at his peak.

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